Mark Lamster | Essays

An (Overdue) Memorial for New York

One cannot compare tradgedies, but it's hard not to notice that here in New York we've spent billions of dollars and the last decade coming to terms with the nightmare of 9/11, while there has been, until now, no serious drive for a memorial to the more than 100,000 victims of the AIDS epidemic. That number is shocking, isn't it? AIDS is one of the great human and cultural catastrophes of our time, a plague still ongoing, even though we tend to forget about it. 

As Justin Davidson reports in New York Magazine, the impetus for a memorial competition came in the wake of the announced closure of St. Vincent's Hospital, a ground zero of sorts for the epidemic. The idea: appropriate the small and largely unused park directly across Seventh Avenue, and recreate it as a memorial space. Congratulations and thanks to our friends at Architizer for making it happen. 

Last week the winner was announced, "Infinite Forest," by studio a+i. From the limited presentation materials, it's somewhat difficult to fully grasp how it will be realized, but it's an encouraging start. Mirrored walls will enclose the site, reflecting back on a grove of birch trees, the effect creating a space that will appear to multiply out to infinity—an appropriate metaphor for the magnitude of the loss. The exterior wall of slate will be at once monumental and somber, but also allow for individuals to chalk up their own impromptu memorials. Below grade there will be a learning space (this was part of the brief), about which I'm curious to know more—generally, I prefer my memorials to be just memorials, and leave the business of history elsewhere.

Infinte Forest, plans

There is, at present, no client for this project, and it will only now begin to make its way toward reality. I hope we can make it happen. Frankly, it's the least we can do.

Comments [4]

Yes, AIDS is one of the "human and cultural catastrophes" of our time, but an AIDS Memorial Park? It's one of the peculiarities of this particular period in Western culture that it has become commonplace and unremarkable (and even de rigueur--it is a fashion, after all) to seek to memorialize and sentimentalize catastrophes of one sort or another. Let's step back for a moment:
can anyone imagine either the late 5th century BC Athenians or late 14th century Florentines even imagining a Plague Memorial? Where for that matter are the 1918 Influenza Memorial Parks?
I'm all in favor of renovating parks, and wish Augustus Saint- Gaudins were around to do a fine and noble and deeply moving sculpture, but a park that's all about "loss"? And can you imagine what those mirrors are going to look like in New York in a few years? And the idiocies and obsenities the slate wall will soon carry. Will chalk be provided as well? The picture is nice to be sure, the idea bad nonetheless.
Tom Beauchamp

I don't see how the drive to carve out a public space that seeks to acknowledge and educate the public about a preventable and ongoing human tragedy is something we should cast aside as merely "fashionable." Of course the move to memorialize is too often instinctual today, but this isn't just some small event that happened yesterday. It is an ongoing struggle that has affected over 100,000 people in New York, and millions globally. I would ask why it's so hard for the monstrous scale alone of this disaster to give the memorial and learning center project more traction, but then again - the reasons are likely the same ones that kept the AIDS crisis under wraps when it began in the 80s - prejudice, ignorance, and political arrogance.

The design is most definitely not perfect - but let's have THAT debate, not discuss New Yorkers' right to commemorate and learn about this crisis that has affected and continues to affect hundreds of thousands of their friends and family members.
Jacob Moore

tom: the greeks of the 5th century were some of history's great memorial builders. their funerary architecture is littered all over the mediterranean. (the theron monument at agrigento is a particular favorite.) one could go on ad infinitum but the point, as jacob notes, is not what was done or not done in the past, but what we can and should do now.

as it is, mirrored surfaces are hardly untenable in new york city--a walk around midtown will dispel that notion. and, yes, i'm sure there will always be homophobic morons, but i'd like to think--i do think--new yorkers are capable of maintaining and enforcing a certain level of decency and decorum. we can have nice things.

we'll see what comes of this proposal given more time, but in my opinion it is a promising start.
Mark Lamster

As I noted in the Observer last week, this design is an almost perfect machine for killing songbirds, particularly during the seasons of migration.

Each morning, as an exact result of landscape next to mirrors, there will be dozens of feathered carcasses at the base of these reflective walls, and during the day visitors can expect to see confused birds bashing into the mirrors as they try, in vain, to escape to that tree that they think they are seeing.

It will be terrible to come to this memorial, expecting a "space of quiet contemplation", only to witness one of these beautiful creatures killing itself - in this respect, the concept is gravely flawed, and something must change to avoid this hereby predicted outcome.
Mr. Downer

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